Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain

I first experience the work of Cornelia Parker as part of the 1997 Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain, where I was mesmerised by her installation ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View‘. 25 years later the Tate have a wonderful retrospective of Parker’s work and some of her major installations, including the piece that was my introduction to her art and her way of thinking. The installation has lost none of its impact, a moment seemingly frozen in time, and just like this wonderful show, it served as the perfect introduction to her work.

The exhibition opens with ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’, created in 1988 and the largest installation Parker had created at the time. Her work is in the tradition of Duchamp’s ‘found objects’ but it takes things further – transforming the pieces through a change of state and by being conscious of the materials and their historical properties. On one level, it was a performance piece, with invited friends, steam roller enthusiasts and their children bearing witness to the flattening of the silver plate objects collected from car-boot sales and flea markets. It so happened that the driver she hired (who was thrilled to be given the change to fulfil the ultimate fantasy of steamroller enthusiasts – squashing hundreds of objects) had previously been employed to squash a bicycle for a Carry On film dressed in drag as Barbara Windsor! At the time, Parker’s home in East London was due to be demolished for the creation of the M11 link road, and that anxiety fed into the piece. The title, taken from Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, has become part of the language but the work references something much more fun

‘I took inspiration from my childhood love of the ‘cartoon deaths’ of Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry, who were constantly being shot full of holes, run off cliffs or flattened with shovels, but always survived.’

On the wall are ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exposed)‘, a series of photogravures of glass negatives of silverware photographed in the 1960s for a Spink auction catalogue, which she found in Brick Lane market. Parker created the images by exposing the glass negatives in their original glassine storage bags, with the cracks scratches and notation becoming part of the image, the silhouettes of the objects, flattened like the physical installation they reference. Two of these (Four Candles and Broken Tureen) are part of the V&A collection where you can also see ‘Breathless‘, Parker’s first commission for a permanent collection. It consists of 54 defunct brass band instruments which were crushed by the hydraulic cylinders of Tower Bridge. As well as referencing the silent flattened ‘breathless’ instruments, the name also comments on Parker’s heavily pregnant state when completing the work. Another work she created whilst pregnant (a surprise at the age of 44) is ‘Blue Shift’, a light-box containing the baby blue nightgown worn by Mia farrow in Rosemary’s Baby’

‘I was convinced I was going to give birth to the devil. I wanted to wear it to give birth, but it’s far too small. Mia Farrow and I are very different. But buying it was really good, a bit like sympathetic magic. Lily is not the devil.’

The next room ‘Small Sculpture, Avoided Objects and Textile Works’ houses some of Parker’s smaller pieces, each of which is a marvel of conceptual thinking in themselves (from top left, anticlockwise) – a small Oliver Twist doll has been sliced in half by the the guillotine that executed Marie Antoinette (‘Please Sir, can I have some more?’ the apposite to ‘Let them eat cake’), ‘The negative of Words’ is the slivers of silver left over from engraving with a burin, ‘Luck Runs Out’ is dice fired through a dictionary that can now only open at a single page, ‘The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached)’ Rodin’s sculpture wrapped with a mile of string, ‘Precipitated Gun’ the pile of rust remaining after a firearm has been oxidised in a corrosion chamber and the mile of string, re-knotted, after it was cut off by someone outraged by Parker’s intervention.

‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ is on display in the third room and it has lost no-one of it’s initial impact. Created at a time when London still reeled from explosions caused by IRA bombs, the shed was blown up with the help of the British Army, who then helped the artist comb the field looking for all the small pieces of charred wood and blackened mangled objects. The title refers to the matter in the universe that we know is there but we are unable to see or analyse and the traditional drawings created of manufactured objects to illustrate which part goes where and how it is put together. You can see the charred remains of a hotter bottle in one of the images as well as a soda siphon, an old squash racket and other household objects that form the detritus of our lives.

‘We watch explosions daily, in action films, documentaries and on the news in never-ending reports of conflict. I chose the garden shed because it’s the place where you store things you can’t quite show away.’

The following room houses ‘Abstractions’. Each of the wall pieces tells a story related to how the work has been created, with what and the person or place that it refers to. Whilst chatting with one of the gallery assistants she mentioned something that she felt sets Parker apart from some of the other conceptual artists – that her works are still beautiful to look at, even when removed from the initial context and thinking. Holes burnt in folded layers sheets of paper form decorative grids and patterns, before you realise that they were created with a red-hot poker, referencing the disembowelling of Edward II, immortalised in Christopher Marlowe’s play and Derek Jarman’s film. ‘Pornographic Drawings’ look like Rorschach blots used in psychology, and were in fact created using pornographic video tapes given to Parker by Customs and Excise which she then dissolved in solvent to create ‘ink’. A pair of what look like splatter painting, one white and one red, are in fact created using brick dust from a house that fell off the cliffs at Dover and chalk taken from the famous white cliffs. Parker’s daughter playing hopscotch inspired her to cast the cracks between the slabs in Bunhill Cemetery, the final resting place of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake.

2004’s ‘Perpetual Canon’, named after a piece of music so arranged that having arrived at the end, it can begin again seamlessly, and so continue indefinitely. Created for the circular space at the Wurttembergisher Kunstverein in Stuttgart, the old instruments create a visual canon with no beginning or end. Playing within the space is a version of Jerusalem, filling the gallery with music and echoing the sounds the instruments once produced.

‘Suspended pointing upwards around a central lightbulb, their shadows march around the walls. The shadow performance replaces the cacophonous sounds of their flattened hosts. Viewers and their shadows stand in for absent players.’

Two rooms of Parker’s films follow, which she has been making since 2007. The moving image piece I found particularly affecting was the four channel projection ‘American Gothic’ shot on iPhones at Halloween in 2016 which focuses on a rally in New York outside Trump Tower. Slowed down markedly, the masked celebratory ‘dance’ takes on an extremely sinister and frightening aspect, prefiguring the end of Trumps term and the storming of congress.

‘War Room’ has a specific claustrophobic quality, with its blood red tented structure lit by three naked lightbulbs. Parker was invited to create a piece of work about the First World War which gave her the opportunity to visit the poppy factory in Richmond. The tent structure is made from the red paper rolls after remembrance day poppies have been stamped out of them.

‘I decided to make ‘War Room’ like a tent, suspending the material like fabric. It’s based on the magnificent tent which Henry VIII had made for the peace summit with the French king in 1520, known as the Field of Cloth of Gold. About a year later they were at war again.’

In 2017, Parker became the UK’s first female official Election Artist. Her instagram feed with daily observations became the film ‘Election Abstract’ on show in the first film rooms. The Politics Room that follows is dominated by collaborative pieces which further demonstrate Parkers commitment to social justice and politics. The ‘Blackboard Drawing’ feature primary school children’s thoughts on the political turmoil they witnessed daily on television. ‘Magna Carter (An Embroidery)’ involved over 250 people, each stitching different key words particular to their situation, including Baroness Doreen Lawrence who stitched the words ‘justice’, ‘denial’ and ‘delay’. A seemingly innocuous series of black and white images of clouds take on a different aspect when you realise the clouds were floating above the Imperial War Museum and shot with a camera that belonged to Rudolf Hess.

The final room houses a work created this year. ‘Island’ features a greenhouse with floor tiles from the Houses of Parliament, worn down over the decades by the feet of people in power. The single lightbulb pulses to life and then dims down again on a loop, the binary certainty of black and white now shifts perpetually through shades of grey.

‘I’ve painted the panes of glass of a greenhouse with white brushstrokes of cliff chalk, like chalking time. So the glasshouse becomes enclosed, inward looking, a vulnerable domain, a little England with a cliff face veil. The ‘Island’ in question is our own. In our time of Brexit, alienated from Europe, Britain is emptied out of Europeans just when we need them most. The spectre of the climate crisis is losing large: with crumbling coastlines and rising sea levels, things seem very precarious.’

Cornelia Parker is at Tate Britain. London until 16th October, 2022. As you can probably guess, I can’t recommend a visit enough. For further investigation I wholeheartedly recommend Iwona Blazwick’s book ‘Cornelia Parker‘ and the exhibition catalogue. You can also read my thoughts about the wonderful show she curated ‘Found‘ at the Foundling Museum here.

All images and text © Jonathan Dredge, all quotes and artwork © Cornelia Parker
Mia Farrow quote from an interview in the Guardian with Simon Hattenstone.

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